The secrets to a successful career in private equity

associate

When it comes to employment and job creation, private equity firms hold a dual reputation. We are job creators and job destroyers, depending on whom you ask. There is no telling how many net jobs the industry has added inside their portfolio companies over the decades.

But there is one job we can’t stop adding within our own walls: the associate. Not too long ago these entry-level jobs at PE funds didn’t even exist. Now, thousands of associates are burning hours late into the evening, finishing models and running returns analyses across office towers in Manhattan, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

What can a 24-year-old, just a couple years out of college, do for a private equity firm that writes billion-dollar checks? And how do you succeed if you find yourself in one of these coveted jobs? (Listen here to our podcast with Kevin Fitzgerald, an associate at Chicago Growth Partners, who gives the real scoop on getting a job in PE.)

Twenty years ago, I was one of just a few PE associates in all of Chicago. I didn’t realize I was starting a career that would lead me up the private equity ladder, touching every rung up from associate to managing partner. In 1995, I was picked out of William Blair & Co’s equity research department to join their latest private equity fund. I’d spent two years “analyzing” public technology companies (I say “analyzing” generously because with an art history degree I was light on math skills back then).

Lucky for me, as the young guy in the office, everyone assumed I had a knack for technology. I was perfectly happy to let them think so.  Plus, my timing was good.

Over the next 20 years, I moved across a couple different firms (with an MBA thrown in the middle to get my PE union card punched) as an analyst, associate, senior associate, vice president, principal, partner and managing partner. In those various jobs I participated at every level in a fund – from the bag carrier to the fundraiser – so I have a unique perspective on the role. And, hopefully, some rare empathy for the young people in these positions.

Here is my advice for associates trying to work their way up:

Do the hard stuff. Establish yourself early as the person who takes on the tough tasks. Everyone wants to work on the hot new deal, but those who take on the details in a messy turnaround get noticed faster. In the associate role, you’ll never get credit for the winners, but you will get tons of credit for helping fix the losers. Plus, you’ll be left alone doing it because most people don’t like to get their hands dirty. So you’ll get more authority and a high degree of autonomy, which is a nice combo at a young age.

Focus on portfolio companies. As a general rule, make your portfolio CEOs and CFOs happy first, then your PE boss. You’ll learn way more about what really matters about business (and your own career) from management teams than you will from your PE co-workers. Find an exec in the portfolio who can be a good mentor and make him/her look really good. That feedback gets back to your bosses quickly, so it’s a win-win for you.

Play nice. The upside about a PE role vs. banking is that you get put in positions of influence regularly (that’s why you quit banking in the first place, right?). The downside is that you get put in the position to look really bad regularly, too. Most everyone you meet outside your firm — bankers, lawyers, management teams — probably expects you to come across as a pompous jerk. What if you presented yourself as humble, grateful and self-aware instead? #winning.

Bite your tongue and bide your time. There are going to be lots of times when you know better than the people around you. It might even be most of the time. If you find yourself in a hierarchical firm where there are set roles and little room to influence from the bottom up, just sit tight, get some good experience and make a move to somewhere else when the time is right. PE can be a great jumping off point for lots of jobs in finance and even at real companies, too.

Think long and hard about whether you really want a PE career. Just like in consulting or banking, the entry-level associate job in PE has little to do with the job you do as a partner. Take a look at the jobs above you and be honest with yourself. Is that how you want to spend the next 20 years of your career? Just because PE is the sexy job to land out of investment banking, that doesn’t mean it suits you as a career. While you might have the skills to process a deal, do you have the interest in finding them, fundraising, managing investors and managing a fund?

Private Equity as a cradle-to-grave career is a pretty new concept. There’s much to consider as a 24-year old just entering the industry. PE firms often hire the same sort of people — investment bankers and analysts. The lack of diversity might not make for an industry with many people you’d like to hang out with at a barbecue. And private equity executives are notoriously bad at managing people in their own business. So the chances you land at a firm with a thoughtful approach to human resources are pretty low.

However, it’s a great job if you want to learn about business, quickly see the impact of your decisions and meet all kinds of entrepreneurs along the way. Take it from an art history major: If you stick around long enough, you can actually start to get pretty good at it.

Devin Mathews is a managing partner at Chicago Growth Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm focused on buyouts of small growth companies in the technology, education and healthcare industries. He can be reached via email at dmathews@cgp.com. Follow him on Twitter @devinmathews

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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